The minor league season is over. But for top prospects around baseball, there’s still plenty of baseball left to be played. Some of the best prospects in baseball at the Double-A and Triple-A levels along with talented players from lower down in the minor leagues will participate in the Arizona Fall League, which gives prospects a chance to make up for lost time over the course of the minor league season and continue sharpening their skills. It’s an exciting time as tons of top prospects in baseball are gathered together in the same place and with a good AFL, they could be in the majors leagues before they know it. The Padres are sending arguably their three top prospects to the AFL along with several other notable players, and it will be exciting to watch.
Most of the players in the Arizona Fall League have little if any big league experience. Casey Kelly fits that as well, with all of two major league starts under his belt at this point, but it’s not often that you see a pitcher who has showed quite a bit of promise in the major leagues sent to the AFL. But Kelly, who will turn 23 in October, is an interesting case. Kelly missed most of 2012 with elbow inflammation but was an excellent when he came back, striking out 39 while walking just 3 in 8 starts and 37.2 innings as he worked his way up from rookie ball to Double-A to Triple-A and now to the big leagues. But no matter how well Kelly plays in the majors, the season will be over in a month and he’s going to finish with around 80 innings overall on the year. The Padres are sending Kelly to the AFL to continue his development as a pitcher, but more importantly, just to pitch. Kelly, who is 6’3″, 195, throws a fastball from the low-to-mid 90’s with excellent natural sink although it is not a great swing-and-miss pitch. He gets his wings and misses with his other two offerings, his curveball and his changeup. It is strange that Kelly throws a curveball rather than a slider to go along with his sinker, but it works out fine for Kelly as his curveball is a low-80’s pitch with sharp 11-to-5 break. His changeup in the mid-80’s plays very well off his fastball, featuring great run away from right-handed batters along with late sink that makes it another swing-and-miss pitch for Kelly when it he can command it. Kelly is never going to be a true ace-type pitcher because of his inability to get swings-and-misses on his fastball and less than exquisite command of his pitches, but he has the ability to be a strong number two who forces a lot of weak contact and limits the walks while striking out batters at a good if not great rate, and he has the ability to start becoming that type of pitcher as soon as next season. In the AFL, Kelly will work a bit on his command and his changeup, but he’s just going to go out there, log some innings, and be ready for a big role in the Padres’ 2013 starting rotation.
What happens when a top prospect has a season that fails to live up to expectations? One thing to do is to send him to the AFL to try to work things out. That’s what the Padres are doing with Rymer Liriano, 21, who entered the season as arguably the Padres’ the best prospect following the trade of Anthony Rizzo. Liriano really did not have that bad of a year as he moved up from High-A Lake Elsinore to Double-A San Antonio, but he certainly didn’t tear up the competition, posting a .280/.350/.417 line with 32 doubles, 4 triples, 8 homers, 62 RBI, 32 of 40 stolen bases, and an alarming 119-41 strikeout to walk ratio in 127 games and 520 plate appearances. Take out 11 hit-by-pitches and 6 intentional walks and his OBP would have been just .303. Liriano doesn’t look like your typical toolsy top prospect, coming in at 6’0″, 210, and he didn’t play like it either. Liriano shows great bat speed and has the strength to hit the ball a long way when he’s at his best. But in 2012, impatience and breaking balls got the best of Liriano and his power didn’t show up all year. He often hits the ball hard, but his contact has been coming more and more on the ground as he has gotten in front of offspeed pitches. Only shoddy minor league defense and his great speed allowed him to hit .280 on the season. Liriano is a true burner at this point, stealing bases at a good rate and beating out of a lot of groundballs, although with his thick frame, you never know how long his great speed will last. In right field, he has good range and a cannon for an arm, but he’s very inaccurate with his throws. Liriano has a lot to work on this fall as he tries to figure out what went wrong this past season. He will work hard on his patience and figuring out which pitches to drive and on the opposite edge of the spectrum, he’ll work on his bunting. He’ll also try to get more accurate on his throws from the outfield. Rymer Liriano has something to prove in the AFL after a poor season. But if he makes the type of progress the Padres believe he can make, he’ll be right back up there among their top prospects.
The Padres’ first round pick in 2011, Cory Spangenberg, 21, has not had the type of full-season pro debut that the Padres would have liked to see but the Padres are still very high on him moving forward. A 6’0″, 185 second baseman, Spangenberg posted a .271/.324/.352 line at High-A Lake Elsinore with 12 doubles, 8 triples, 1 homer, 40 RBI, 27 of 36 stolen bases, and just a 72-26 strikeout to walk ratio in 98 games and 426 plate appearances. He was out from mid-June until July 31st after getting hit by a pitch in a head, leading to a concussion, and that derailed his season. Spangenberg has excellent speed and used it to steal bases and beat out groundballs and bunts all season. He also played very well defensively at second base. But previously regarded as a patient hitter, Spangenberg completely lost that in 2012, and although he made a ton of contact, he also failed to hit the ball with any authority (a problem even before he got hurt). The good news is that Spangenberg’s problem is something that should be much more easily corrected than a lot of players in similar situations. Spangenberg actually has a great eye for the zone and stays on breaking balls fine, but the problem was that he wasn’t disciplined enough to let balls within the zone that he couldn’t get good wood on and look for a pitch to drive. Spangenberg shows great bat speed with a compact swing and he has the ability to hit for a high average with gap power to all fields once he gets his approach at the plate right. And once he manages to get on base more often, he’ll be able to take advantage of his speed to steal more bases. Spangenberg will be just a taxi squad player in the AFL, able to play only on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but the Padres hope to see him improve his patience and start hitting for a little power in addition to simply making up for the time he missed. Things got out of sorts for Spangenberg this season, but they hope to see him recover in the AFL on his way to a great 2013 season.
The Padres are sending another one of their top prospects to the AFL in the lefty Erlin, who turns 22 in October. Erlin had a rough go this season, pitching fine when he was on the mound but missing time in spring training with an oblique injury that still affected him to begin the season before going down with elbow tendinitis in mid-May. Erlin was going to see time at Triple-A in 2012 had he been healthy, but he ended up making just 14 starts on the year, 3 rehab starts at Rookie ball and 11 at Double-A San Antonio. He went 3-1 with 2.92 ERA, a 12.4 K/9, a 2.4 BB/9, and a 1.0 HR/9 in the 11 starts for San Antonio although just 52.1 IP, less than 5 innings per start. Erlin surpassed 5 innings just once all season as the Padres brought him back slowly from his two injuries. Erlin, just 5’11”, 190, is a control artist he pounds the zone with his entire arsenal, which consists of a fastball, a changeup, and a curveball. Erlin’s fastball ranges from the high-80’s to low-90’s with some run away from left-handed batters per little sink. He throws it for strikes like crazy but doesn’t command it all that well, leaving him exposed to the home run ball, although given that he’ll be pitching in Petco Park someday, that isn’t as much of a concern as it could be elsewhere. Erlin’s changeup, which he throws from the high-70’s to low-80’s is his best pitch as he gets an outstanding arm slot on it to go with great late downward movement, and he also throws a good big-breaking curveball in the low-70’s that he has really improved in the past couple of seasons. He forces a good amount of swings-and-misses with it and it is also Erlin’s best groundball pitch. Erlin’s arsenal plays up thanks to a deceptive delivery. He profiles as a solid number three starter at this point, although if he can reverse his flyball tendencies, he has a chance to be better. Erlin will head to the AFL to log more innings to make up for his lost time, and he will also work on his fastball command as he tries to force more weak contact on the ground. Erlin hopes to make up for his lost season with a strong AFL performance and finally make that long-awaited trip to Triple-A Reno in 2013 with the big leagues not too far away.
The Padres prospect with the most riding on his Arizona Fall League performance could be Valdez, 23, who could be looked at as anything from a solid prospect to an organizational guy depending on the adjustments he makes in the AFL. Valdez, 5’10”, 185, had a really tough season in 2012 at Double-A San Antonio, posting just a .225/.273/.364 line with 24 doubles, 12 homers, 46 RBI, 13 of 20 stolen bases, and just a 126-21 strikeout to walk ratio in 128 games and 507 plate appearances. Valdez was an interesting organizational sleeper entering the season thanks to good power and speed and the ability to play both middle infield positions at this point with more positions to come. But in 2012, he got power-happy and saw his swing get long while his patience remained nonexistent as his season turned into a disaster. Valdez hit a lot of balls weakly in the air and couldn’t use his speed to get on base by beating out groundballs. He also is a poor bunter. Valdez needs to work on reading pitchers on the basepaths, but he’s going to have to manage to get to first base more often before he starts thinking about that. He has the tools for shortstop, but he needs work on his concentration to cut down on errors. Valdez is going to work on a multiplicity of things in the AFL, from his patience to his bunting to his stealing to his defense, and he has to make strides. Jeudy Valdez is going to be heading back to Double-A in 2013 almost no matter what, but he needs to regain his confidence and start making progress towards improving his game over the course of the fall.
Stites, 22, was the Padres’ 17th round pick in 2011 and the Padres chose to start him slowly for a college pick. After Stities dominated, now the Padres are going to try to speed him up beginning in the AFL. Stites was nearly unhittable for Low-A Fort Wayne, going 2-0 with a 0.74 ERA, an 11.1 K/9, a 0.6 BB/9, a 0.7 HR/9, and 13 saves in 42 appearances and 48.2 IP. He struck out 60 while walking 3. What? Stites features power stuff, controlling his fastball well at around 94 MPH, tossing a sharp slider out of the same arm slot, and also throwing a good straight changeup. With his current arsenal, Low-A hitters couldn’t do anything against him. In the AFL, the Padres are going to see whether Stites can more advanced hitters out right now. Stites needs to work on commanding his fastball within the zone, getting the consistent tight break on the slider and hanging it as rarely as possible, and he needs to find a way to get some sink on his changeup because it’s movement is unimpressive and Stites only gets by with it thanks to a good arm action and its speed differential with its fastball. If Stites shows progress to making all those things happen, he has the ability to be in Double-A by midseason if not sooner and in the big leagues in two years. The Padres are giving Stites a chance to prove himself against more experienced hitters in Arizona, and with a good performance, he’ll get on the fast-track to the majors.
Other than Kelly, who’s already in the big leagues, Quackenbush may be the first Padres player going to the AFL to make the big leagues. Quackenbush, 23, was the Padres’ 8th round pick in 2012 and has done nothing but dominate since signing. In 2012 at High-A Lake Elsinore, Quackenbush has gone 3-2 with a 0.94 ERA, a 10.9 K/9, a 3.4 BB/9, a 0.2 HR/9, and 27 saves in 52 appearances and 57.2 IP. The Padres were a little conservative with Quackenbush keeping him at High-A all season, but they hope some AFL improvement will allow him to go up to Triple-A not long into 2013 and be in the big leagues by September. Quackenbush, who is 6’3″, 207, touches the mid-90’s with his fastball with good sink and some late run away from right-handed batters. He controls it very well and even has solid command of the pitch. The question with Quackenbush is his secondary offerings. Quackenbush throws a tight 11-to-5 curveball but it gets slurvy at times and Quackenbush can’t consistently make it look like a strike. He’s also working on a cutter that has become an effective pitch for him, but not consistently. Quackenbush’s fastball is an excellent pitch that will be a plus pitch at the major league level, but the question is whether he can get his other pitches to be consistently effective. Quackenbush will look to make progress with that in the AFL and he has late-innings potential it he can make that happen. The Padres hope to see Quackenbush continue to overpower opposing hitters in the AFL, and with the necessary improvements, he has the ability to do that in the major leagues and soon.
To hit home runs consistently in Petco Park, you need to have excellent power. The Padres are going to see if a lesser-known prospect, Nate Freiman, has that type of power and the ability to utilize it consistently. An enormous 6’7″, 225, Freiman, who will turn 26 in December, had an outstanding season at Double-A San Antonio in 2012, posting a .298/.370/.502 line with 31 doubles, 24 homers, 105 RBI, and a 95-49 strikeout to walk ratio in 137 games and 581 plate appearances. Freiman looks like he should be a big power guy, but his approach is naturally gap-to-gap. He shows good bat speed and makes a lot of contact and hard contact, with his power, which has looked above-average the past couple of years but not plus, coming out naturally. Freiman’s plate discipline is currently fine, but if he were to hone it more, more strikeouts would come but also he would be able to find better pitches to drive. Freiman is a very good defender at first base as well. Freiman is old for a prospect and may not have the power to profile at first base, but he’s a pretty good pure hitter and the Padres are going to give him a chance to show what he can do in the AFL.
The Padres’ Arizona Fall League contingent is extremely interesting because of both its talent and how close several of the players are to the big leagues. Padres fans will be able to get a glimpse at their team’s future over the fall, and the future may not be so far away.
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